Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ken Griffey, Jr. & the Importance of Team Culture

117 Games 387 AB 83 Hits 19 HR 214 BA 324 OBP

Not a great stat line. A quantitative analyst would predict this player was a total bust and should be replaced. Seattle columnist Art Thiel would call these "stats without meaning." This line represents Ken Griffey, Jr. who made incalculable contributions rebuilding the performance culture of the Seattle Mariners. This year the team made one of the ten biggest turn arounds in major league history going from 101 losses to 86 wins. Griffey her relentless worked to rebuild a culture of support, professionalism and fun that enabled a young and largely untested team to achieve this milestone.

By stats analysts, all players are fungible, and it makes no sense to keep an underperforming statistical player in the line up. You should replace the player with a cheaper but higher producing player. Like most pure statistical analysis of players and teams or any institution, the statistical analysis misses vital qualitative categories of leadership but above all of culture.

Culture captures the beliefs and norms and interpersonal relations on a team. Culture expresses the trust, respect and support (or lack thereof) that a group of athletes demonstrates in their daily action. Culture captures the peer pressure and sanctions and motivations that flow from the role models of elders and the degree to which authority of coaches is heeded. Group norms mean players learn from each other either good or bad habits and responses. Rookie Mariner's Coach Don Wakamatsu calls it a "belief system."

Last year the Seattle Mariners collapsed in a maelstrom of recrimination, incompetence, underperformance. In the end the players quit; packing boxes sat before lockers a week before the end of the season. The best player Ichiro was vilified in the press and attacked anonymously by team members. No one chided or lead the younger players, and budding superstars like Felix Hernandez stuttered in their growth. They lost 101 games and left with barely a word to each other.

This year the Mariners turned in one of the top ten turn arounds in baseball history by winning 85 games. The last game ended with players hugging each other, markching around SAFECO field throwing out gifts and players impromptu hoisting Griffey and Ichiro on their shoulders. This was not a penant win, this was the end of a third place season. You don't see this type of loyalty from fans often these days. You almost never see this joy and community from profesional players.

Ken Griffey, Jr. stood at the center of this renewal.. The greatest player in Mariner's and perhaps Seattle history. He returned to the city of his professional genesis and greatest years. A city he gave his knees to on the cement field at the Kingdom. A city where he hit over 400 home runs and electrified people with his catches and passion for the game. A city that embraced this complex and interesting and joyous warrior. '

Griffey provided something much more important and interesting that helped rebuild the club, he worked relentlessly to help instill the "belief system" in players. Talent is not enough, neither is money. A dysfunctional culture can destroy teams--the Yankees proved it for years.

Culture take work. Managers can't do it alone. A few players who have respect and authority have to work hard to set informal standards, teach new team members, push people to perform and help others out of their slumps. Griffey performed this for the Mariners. He also took the media spotlight off of Ichiro who is not personally designed as a leader or one who can carry the emotional tenor of a team.

It was a great ending for a complex career. I'd like to see it end this way--Griffey still a hero with a unique and beautiful swing on the shoulders of his teammates with tears in his eyes. They celebrated his last accomplishment, not home runs or spectacular catches, but helping lead and create a winning culture on a losing team. This is the way to end.

(Picture courtesy of Seattle Times)

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